new kermit voice

(Welcome to The Disney Discourse, a recurring feature where Josh Spiegel discusses the latest in Disney news. He goes deep on everything from the animated classics to the theme parks to live-action franchises. In this edition: why does Disney not know what to do with the Muppets?)

Earlier this week, a much-ballyhooed change to one of the most enduring characters in modern popular culture was unveiled, but you’d be forgiven for not noticing.

In their newest entry of the weekly series entitled “Muppet Thought of the Week,” the Muppets’ YouTube channel displayed a brand new Kermit the Frog. Kermit, of course, still looks the same, but if you watch the video and think he sounds a bit different – you’re right! The character, created and performed by Muppet honcho Jim Henson until his untimely passing in 1990, had been voiced and performed by Steve Whitmire for over 25 years. As of now, another longtime Muppet performer, Matt Vogel, portrays Kermit.

Earlier in the summer, this unexpected and abrupt passing of the torch was detailed at length online because of the mysterious nature of why Whitmire had been fired from the Jim Henson Company after performing as Kermit in multiple films, TV shows, and specials. (/Film wrote about some of these details last month, if you want further context.) It’s unfortunate, at best, to see the seeming in-fighting between Whitmire and the Jim Henson Company become so public. However, the unveiling of the new Kermit raises another, larger frustration. It would be easy to criticize Vogel’s performance as Kermit in that new video — he predictably doesn’t sound like the Kermit portrayed by either Henson or Whitmire, so it will at least take some getting used to — but it’s kind of hard to muster up a lot of commentary about a video that is literally less than 30 seconds long. This, in effect, speaks to the real problem: the Walt Disney Company has owned the Muppets for nearly 15 years, and this is how they decide to introduce a new Kermit the Frog? This is how they handle the Muppets?

muppets most wanted

Two Movies

Disney pursued the Jim Henson Company as far back as the late 1980s, when Michael Eisner wanted to bring in the Muppets, as well as the characters from Sesame Street. Though that deal went nowhere, Henson started to work on attractions for the Disney theme parks; only the delightful Muppet-Vision 3-D movie at Disney’s Hollywood Studios saw the light of day. After Henson’s death, Disney released the next two Muppet movies, The Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island, and their ABC network aired the Muppets Tonight TV show for 2 seasons in the late 1990s. There’s something a bit familiar about this strategy — two films, a theme-park attraction of some kind, and a not-very-long-running TV show — in how the company has dealt with the Muppets in the last decade now that they finally own the characters.

Disney did buy the Muppet characters in 2004, but it took seven years for that purchase to produce a new feature film. The Muppets was a big gamble for Disney; it wasn’t very high-budget, but featured recognizable A-list actors like Jason Segel and Amy Adams, plenty of celebrity cameos, and was as much a reboot for the younger audience as it was a blast of nostalgia for adults who’d grown up with the original iteration of the Muppets. The film was a solid success, grossing $165 million worldwide and garnering songwriter Bret McKenzie an Oscar for Best Original Song (the first, and still only, Oscar for any Muppet movie).

The 2014 sequel, Muppets Most Wanted, shifted the focus away from the human characters (Segel and Adams don’t show up; instead, in the opening scene, two deliberately noticeable doubles appear from the back only). That film instead focused on the Muppets themselves. The good news: Muppets Most Wanted is a generally very funny film and arguably better than the 2011 film. The bad news: in spite of decent reviews, the film grossed $80 million worldwide, thus seeming like a disappointment to the studio.

the muppets

A TV Show

The good news/bad news feeling recurred in 2015, when ABC announced that, in the fall, it would be airing a new show with the lovable felt characters, also titled The Muppets. From the early buzz, the show was going to be in a similar-ish vein to The Muppet Show, depicting Kermit the Frog trying to keep a variety TV show afloat from backstage, always a moment or two away from total disaster. There would be weekly celebrity cameos, plenty of face time for the Muppets themselves, and who knows what else. The cast of Muppets were all the familiar faces, and the show was co-created by Bill Prady (known these days primarily for his work on CBS’ The Big Bang Theory, he is also a longtime Muppets friend, having co-written the Jim Henson tribute that aired on CBS soon after his death).

This should have worked. The bad news was that the show’s early episodes had a notable sense of disconnect from why people like the Muppets. Aping the cinema-verite style of shows like The Office and Parks and Recreation might have felt apt to the showrunners, but it caused the show to feel more acrid than boisterous. The Muppets only lasted 16 episodes on ABC, after losing one showrunner and gaining another.

The Muppets live show

Theme Parks…and YouTube

So now, we have the Muppets in bite-sized forms, as long as you know where to look. If you travel to Walt Disney World, you can find the Muppets at multiple theme parks: in the aforementioned Muppet-Vision 3-D attraction at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, in the Muppet Mobile Lab at Epcot, and in The Muppets…Present Great Moments in American History, a live show at the Magic Kingdom’s Liberty Square. (Muppet-Vision 3-D used to be at Disney California Adventure in Disneyland as well, but was removed in 2014 and its old location is now used as a preview spot for upcoming Disney films.)

If you’re not at the theme parks, though, the primary place to find the Muppets appearing in new content is via their YouTube channel, which is pretty…sparse. The “Muppet Thought of the Week” video featuring the Vogel-performed Kermit is a bit shorter than the others, but it’s not as if any of them are intended to be massively long.

Continue Reading Why Does Disney Have No Idea What to Do With the Muppets? >>

Pages: 1 2Next page

Cool Posts From Around the Web: